My Ambassador

DENVER – For many of us in the United States Foreign Service, Lawrence Eagleburger, who died this weekend, was a larger-than-life figure who left an indelible mark on our institution and on our lives. Eagleburger, who served and later often closely advised a string of US presidents from John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush – and was briefly Secretary of State himself – was a diplomat who went after every tough issue there was.

His courage was matched only by his determination and humor. He wouldn’t so much vanquish his adversaries as make them melt in his presence. It was appropriate that he was the only Foreign Service officer to become Secretary of State. Indeed, had he been appointed in late 1992 for longer than the interregnum between the Bush and Clinton administrations, he arguably would have been the best secretary of state the US ever had.

In the Foreign Service, one’s first ambassador is a very special person. Mine was Eagleburger. I met him in 1978 in his office at the US Embassy in Belgrade for my required “courtesy call,” a stress-inducing event on every newcomer’s arrival checklist. I had just arrived as the “assistant commercial attaché,” a rather modest position, appropriate to a 25-year-old junior Foreign Service officer.

Eagleburger told me what he was trying to do in Yugoslavia in the twilight of President Josip Broz Tito’s life: weave a web of relations with Yugoslavia such that it would keep the country from going in another direction. He had, after all, first been assigned to Yugoslavia in 1963, and become known as “Lawrence of Macedonia” for his relief work after the Skopje earthquake in August of that year.